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White House designer Michael S. Smith

A gallery of work from California designer Michael S. Smith, the new White House decorator, as depicted in his books, "Elements of Style" and "Houses."

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By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Los Angeles designer Michael S. Smith's Web site gives no clue that he has the hottest decorating job in the country: the private quarters of the White House for the Obamas.

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"No time to update it; I've been a little busy," says Smith, who recently lectured to a sold-out crowd of 230 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the District.

When he walked into the White House on Inauguration Day to help the Obamas settle in, he says, it was the first time he had set foot in the place. Now Smith, 45, flies to Washington about every three weeks to work on the upstairs presidential digs. But he has released no details about the project since his role was confirmed in January. In March, the White House announced that the Obamas would not use the $100,000 in government funds allotted new presidents to fix up the residence, instead footing the bill themselves. Translation: There would be no public accounting for how much they spend.

Recently, the White House reported that Smith worked with Michelle Obama and White House curator William Allman in selecting art on-loan from museums to hang in the private quarters and elsewhere.

Smith, who has a staff of 28 people at his Los Angeles office, launched his design firm in 1990 after working with noted California antiques dealer Gep Durenberger and New York designer John Saladino. Smith, whose clients include Steven Spielberg, Cindy Crawford and Rupert Murdoch, has been named one of the top 100 designers in the country by Architectural Digest magazine, and his work is published in virtually every major shelter magazine. His look artfully mixes the past with the very modern and everything in between, elements such as Georgian antiques, Uzbek suzani textiles, 18th-century Chinese wallpaper, sun-bleached Moroccan carpets and a dash of Anthropologie and Pottery Barn.

He has written two design books for Rizzoli and is working on two more. He has a growing stable of licensed products that includes bath fixtures for Kohler's brand Kallista, lighting for Visual Comfort and home fragrance products with scents of tea, iris and figs for Agraria. He has a home in Bel Air, Calif., and an apartment in New York. In Washington, he usually stays at the Hay-Adams hotel or with friends. Smith said his job at the White House is almost completed. And no, despite the rumors that have made the rounds in the blogosphere, he says he has not been fired.

We spoke with Smith in the board room at the Corcoran just before his lecture.

What can you tell us about decorating for the Obamas at the White House?

I have so many high-profile clients. It breaks the trust issue to discuss them. . . . Working at the White House has been an extraordinary experience, an honor. The Obamas are so thoughtful, engaged and intellectually interested in so many diverse things. The moments are amazing, such as when you are looking at all the storerooms that hold White House things, and on Inauguration Day seeing thousands of people out the windows. It's pretty profound, and I'm having a great time.

Ken Blasingame [George and Laura Bush's decorator] did a beautiful job and left the house in extraordinary shape. It made our transition extremely easy.

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